Ashley Bickerton, May 15 - June 26, 1999, at Sonnabend, 420 West Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
The little shop of horrors that is Ashley Bickerton's sixth solo show at this gallery picks up where his fifth left off. Full of hyper-realistically rendered ghouls, geeks, monsters, and weirdos, these new works take his visual extremes to even further extremes, and the autobiographical elements to deeper, more-obscure depths. Bickerton's last show, in 1996, was one of the better comebacks in recent memory; the paintings were full of himself and his vitriolic hatred for the world he came from. These paintings are better. And though his old ghosts -- overfetishized skill and artificial emotion -- continue to dog him, in its own sometimes silly way, this new work exudes an almost Conradian darkness.
Bickerton is to hate what Elizabeth Peyton is to love. He brings the grotesque, the grandiose and the ludicrous into contiguous alignment; at times he compacts the three so tightly they collapse into the sublime. In The Five Sages (1998), five raving serpents (each painted with the grimacing head of Bickerton himself) howl and spout printed epithets. One shrieks, "Rot in some fucking backwater hell you nauseating transparent socially grubbing worms." Another emits a string of curses beginning with "Motherfucking, cock sucking, shit munching, piss-pot licking fucking cuntsuck . . . ." A third just gushes gibberish: "poo-poo, caca, pee-pee, doo-doo." If these are Bickerton's "sages" -- his mystics on the mountain of life -- you know he knows it's too late for spiritual truth, but he's still looking for happiness. This is what gives the work its resonance. Or look at Herr Schoendorff (1999), a man of a certain age, luxury, wealth and leisure time. We see him about to die; suddenly ripped away from his martinis, boating and golf, his leg has been torn off, vultures circle and two headlights approach. But he sits up: he's still got some fight in him. It's like a modern-day version of a Goya "Disaster," and Bickerton knows something about disaster.
An artist whose career reads as much like fable as it does farce, Bickerton has come a long way since the late '80s. Then, he was one of the precocious rulers of the American art roost. Along with fellow yuppie art stars Peter Halley, Jeff Koons and Meyer Vaisman, he was a member of the "Fab 4": for a nanosecond, this quartet led the movement known as Neo-Geo. That was before the fall.
Around the time Bickerton was on the cover of Artforum, in 1988, he exhibited a piece that tempted fate. Landscape #1 was a Judd-like wall work gone heavy metal: a high-tech, accessorized box, labeled with the words "Season 87-88." A red L.E.D. embedded in its surface tracked the work's changing value starting at $25,000; significantly, it only went up because in 1988 no one could imagine it going down. Like a Restoration playwright, Bickerton has always lampooned the art world, attacking his audience, the newly moneyed, and status seekers, while feverishly courting their approval. Then the worst thing that can befall a character in a Restoration play befell Bickerton: he was exiled from the center of intrigue -- the court of the New York art world. Neo-Geo went belly-up. Bickerton fell out of favor and, at the age of 29, banished himself to Bali, where he still lives. But his troubles were far from over.
In 1991, he attempted a comeback with a group of wall works that were supposedly about being ecologically conscientious. Not only did these works ring hollow, but fate had something special in store for Bickerton. The show opened October 19, the same day of Matthew Barney's first one-person exhibition in New York. I remember seeing Bickerton in a bar, late that night, embracing Barney and muttering over and over again, "I'm nothing, man. You're it." This was perhaps Bickerton's nadir. Two years later, when he mounted his next exhibition, he had been more or less forgotten, and the show went unnoticed. Then, in one last bit of purgatorial timing, his last show -- his 1996 comeback -- opened the same day as Damien Hirst's scene-stealing extravaganza two blocks away at Gagosian. Now Bickerton's karma may be leveled at last.
Walk through and marvel at Bickerton's meticulous, mind-bending technique. You can almost hear the hiss of the airbrush. He's Norman Rockwell without a cause, Vargas with a demonic streak. The title of his show is "Going Dutch: One Man's Odyssey Into the Depths of Anal Retention." Taken literally, it suggests Bickerton is in pursuit of verisimilitude and indulges a rage for detail often found in Dutch painting. But there's a downside to this. Sometimes his skill level is so high it cancels out the subject matter, his talent so dazzling it turns hot anger into cool satire. It makes you wonder if this is just another pose -- if the emotion is as synthetic as the technique.
Bickerton's is a very learned -- not original -- ability, and sometimes his facility just gets claustrophobic. Other times, it devolves into illustration, or something out of Mad magazine, as in Ruby and Rommel (1998), a painting of a diaper-wearing, cigarette-smoking chimp waving printed placards who sits next to a knife-wielding little girl. Bickerton may be trying to show how apes and kids are related, but it's a bit obvious. And while The Party's Dead (1998) -- a painting of eight heads impaled on sticks -- is tightly done, there's nothing much to think about.
But when Bickerton is on, he's lethal. The Vlaminko's (1999) pictures a mother, father and daughter. Sally, the mother, sits naked in a failed lotus position inside a pyramidical contraption. She's your New Age, crystal-rubbing, guru-loving, enlightenment-seeking, wannabe Earth Mother. Roger, the dad, is hog-tied and wears a Donald Duck mask, Manolo Blahnik heels and a Nazi armband. Their daughter, Laxmi, is this great, lumpish, acne-covered thing. A consumer child draped in advertising, she is lost in a haze of Gameboys, cigarettes, candy bars and Walkmans. Bickerton also loves bringing his audience in. Them (1998) is a study in the insanity of the exile, as two morons -- one slightly dwarfed, the other a naked, mud-smeared ex-hippie -- gleefully point right at you, welcoming you as a third in their mad company. It's as fabulous as it is scary.
"Going Dutch" also means paying your own way. Bickerton, to whom so much has happened in so little time (he turned 40 last week), is more than back; he's his own man now. His recent work brings together his wide-ranging ideas about objects and finish, and melds his fearless approach to material and information. In The Birth of Djangozao (1998), a picture of the artist holding his newborn son, Bickerton's darkness finally turns to light. His wife, utterly exhausted having just given birth, sits next to him. Although the artist is dressed like some squirrelly Vietnam veteran -- a psycho-scarecrow who has been hiding in the jungle too long -- he is in ecstasy. He looks at you as if to say, "This is the truth, this is real." In the last show, we saw Bickerton with nothing to lose; his anger was out there. Here, his darkness is gaining a fuller dimension. It is repellent, disturbing, but ultimately thrilling.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.